In bondage on the road to Mandalay

Vivien Morgan, reports on the Burmese government's use of slave labour to prepare for a tourist bonanza

Under the midday sun a small group of Burmese labour by the roadside, clearing gutters and rebuilding embankments. To tourists on their way to the Sagaing pagoda in minibuses with tinted windows, they do not merit a second glance. But these men ar e working at gunpoint. A soldier stands guard over them.

This is the reality of life in Burma for hundreds and thousands of people - forced into unpaid work, to polish and prettify the country for a tourist boom in 1996, designated the Year of Myanmar, as Burma styles itself. Starved of international funding since the economic embargo by the World Bank and others, in response to the 1988 military takeover by the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the government seeks to lure foreign-currency spenders, in the form of tourists, But the infrastructure is run- down; the roads unsuitable for tourist coaches, the railways slow and unreliable - you can wait at Rangoon for two days before the train leaves for Mandalay - and the archaeological sites and beauty spots, not up to accommodating mass tourism.

So the generals have turned the country into one huge slave- labour camp. The rich can buy their way out or pay for someone else to do the work. For the rest, there is no escape.

One of the largest projects is the fort at Mandalay - the fabled city of Kings. The red fort and its pagodas, the gilded royal barge moored in the moat, Mandalay Hill, with its sacred temples and steep path of 1,200 steps leading to Nirvana - all evoke the past grandeur of what is now called the Golden Land.

Today, the fort and moat swarm with hundreds of prisoners and villagers, repairing walls and dredging mud. They are watched by armed soldiers, unpaid and fed only by a midday meal of rice.

In scenes reminiscent of a biblical Hollywood epic, they labour from dawn to dusk. The prisoners no longer wear leg-irons (though they still do in parts of the country off the tourist map). They are marched to a nearby barracks at night. Villagers squat in makeshift camps by the fort.

Every month a village must deliver a certain number of men and women to work for two weeks. As one man said: "When the order comes, we have to go. It we don't, the police come the next day and you're fined. If you can't pay the fine you can go to jail for about two months."

More than half a million people are being press-ganged into work on the Ye-Tavoy railway - dubbed the "Second Death Railway" because conditions resemble those on the line across the River Kwai built by Second World War prisoners.

This project's toll in human suffering is appalling. Hundreds of villages are torched to clear the area, those living there sent packing. Witness accounts from those, like one woman who escaped to the Thai border camps, provide the details. "There were thousands of us working on the railway. They even take pregnant women. I saw women raped and beaten. One gave birth to her baby, but both she and the baby died and we had to take away the bodies - I couldn't stand it anymore, so I fled."

At Pagan, 300km from Mandalay, the picture is the same. The heart of Pagan, the old village, was recently demolished. Deemed an eyesore to tourists, and too close to the main temples, the inhabitants were moved to wasteland 3 kilometres away.

These same villagers are forced to work at archaeological site restorations for no wages.

Pagan, renowned for its Buddhist pagodas, was designated by Unesco as an area of historic importance. While international agencies pour in money for restoration, workers' wages are being withheld - and aid diverted to government coffers.

About 300,000 refugees have reached the Thai border. Living in camps on the Moei river, their numbers grow daily.

When tourists arrive in increasing numbers in the so-called Golden Land of Myanmar, the authorities hope they won't see - beyond the pagodas and serene smiling Buddhas - the real face of Burma.

9 Vivien Morgan's report on Burma will appear on BBC television news today.

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